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Iraq: Arab States Move Closer To U.S. Over Efforts To Win UN Mandate

  • Charles Recknagel

As Washington focuses on winning United Nations approval for its forceful stance on Iraq, there are signs that several Arab states are easing their previous opposition to staging military actions against Baghdad from their territory. RFE/RL looks at why some Arab governments now appear ready to back operations against Iraq even as public sentiment across the Arab world resists doing so.

Prague, 26 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- For months, many Arab governments have publicly said they would oppose any U.S.-led military campaign to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

But this month, several states, including key regional players Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have signaled they would accept such a campaign provided it were approved by the United Nations.

The signals come as Washington and London have accelerated a drive to press the UN Security Council to adopt a tough new stance on Iraq. The United States and Britain are soon expected to ask the Security Council to demand that Baghdad comply with arms inspections within a defined period of time. If those conditions are not met, the proposed resolution would give the Security Council the right to use all necessary means to force Baghdad to comply. No date has yet been set for submitting the proposed resolution or for a Security Council vote.

Commenting on the U.S.-British effort, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said 10 days ago that "every country that has signed the UN Charter" would be bound by the Security Council's decision.

Similarly, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt called on Iraq to "seize the opportunity...to avoid serious repercussions." The Egyptian leader held talks with top Saudi officials this week in Riyadh to pursue what Cairo said were efforts to save "the Iraqi people and the region from more destruction and war."

Previously, both Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- like most other Arab states -- have called for solving the Iraqi crisis through diplomatic means. They have also ruled out making their territory available for any unilateral U.S. military action.

Some analysts see the Saudi and Egyptian shift as a sign that many Arab governments regard a U.S.-led military campaign against Iraq as increasingly imminent. As a result, they are conditionally casting their lot with Washington, despite the fact that public sentiment across the Arab world runs strongly against an attack on Baghdad.

Neil Partrick, a regional expert at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, said that Saudi Arabia's decision appears to be motivated largely by concerns that its ties with Washington would deteriorate further if it did not lend its support to a UN-mandated operation. "[The Saudi decision] comes against a background, obviously, of difficult relations with the U.S. since [11 September], and also the Qataris putting themselves in literally quite a forward position in terms of their role, at least in terms of basing for the U.S. maintenance of a wider security framework in the Persian Gulf. I don't think the Saudis want to be left behind, not that they fear the Qataris are a challenger to the Saudis' preeminent position, but it is indicative of how things have moved on," Partrick said.

Because Saudi Arabia had previously ruled out the use of its territory for any unilateral U.S. strike on Iraq, Washington has switched the focus of much of its military planning to neighboring Qatar. U.S. media recently reported that the Pentagon is planning to send part of the staff of the U.S. Central Command, headquartered in Florida, to Qatar to form the basis of a planning group for any military campaign against Baghdad.

At the same time, U.S. forces have begun upgrading a major air base in Qatar, fortifying hangars, and adding new runways. Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jasim al-Thani said earlier this month that the United States has not yet requested "permission for an attack from Qatar to Iraq" but "if they ask us, we will look seriously" at the request to use the Qatari facilities.

It is unclear whether, in the wake of a UN mandate, Riyadh would also permit the use of its facilities for operations against Baghdad.

Partrick said that Saudi Arabia also may have decided to publicly state its new stance on Iraq because it wants to assure a role for itself in influencing whatever new regional balance emerges with a post-Hussein Iraq. "A new regime in Iraq would want, it seems, fairly close relations with Washington. And, although this would not replace Saudi Arabia as the preeminent partner of the U.S. in terms of security and the flexibility of its oil policy, it's a concern from the Saudi point of view that it could be left behind in a new strategic framework that may emerge [after] any conflict," Partrick said.

As the Saudis lead the way in publicly accepting a UN-mandated use of force against Baghdad, not all the other governments in the Persian Gulf region are following suit. Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, called this week on Arab and Muslim states to reject any military attack on Iraq. Bahraini newspapers quoted Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Sulman al-Khalifa as saying Iraq's recent offer to accept the return of UN arms inspectors "had removed any reasons to continue threats against it."

Analysts say that the Arab governments that are now signaling their support for Washington may be hoping that the condition of a UN mandate will help soften what is likely to be strong resentment to the moves among segments of their own populations. Anti-American sentiment is widely reported to be growing across the Arab world amid the continuing Israeli-Palestinian crisis and Washington's threats to use force against Baghdad.

The Iraqi regime and many Islamists have sought to stoke the anti-Americanism by representing the Palestinian and Iraqi crises as twin efforts by Washington to weaken the Arab world. Iraqi officials have frequently accused Western leaders of Zionism, as did Iraqi Culture Minister Hamad Yussef Hammadi this week in reacting to British Prime Minister's Tony Blair's speech before the British parliament. "This is part of the campaign launched by world Zionism against Iraq. Blair's claims are absolutely groundless. Blair is having discussions with the House of Commons. The proof which he alleges he has is under debate even inside the British House of Commons," Hammadi said.

In an effort to build additional popular Arab opposition to any attack on Iraq, Baghdad this month called on all Arabs to fight against foreign aggression. Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan said that "we call on Arabs and good people to confront the aggressors, their interests, and representatives, wherever they may be."

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